THE WEB. Universal, 1947. Ella Raines, Edmond O’Brien, William Bendix, Vincent Price, Maria Palmer, John Abbott, Fritz Leiber, Howland Chamberlin. Director: Michael Gordon.

   Films beget films. At least the popular ones do. In a process not unlike evolution, successful films breed films like themselves which in turn permutate into others like themselves, and on and on until the trend overpopulates itself and dies off.

   But along the way, some interesting specimens pop up. Case in point: The Web, a nifty little semi-noir mystery that deserves to be better known. Unpretentious, fast-paced and intelligent, this was scripted by a team of writers (William Bowers, Bertram Milhauser and Harry Kurnitz) with solid credentials, and directed by Michael Gordon (who he?) with an eye for personality and atmosphere.

   The forebears of this film are of interest: Back in 1944, Fox came out with Laura, a mega-hit starring Gene Tierney and Dana Andrews, with meaty roles doled out to Clifton Webb and Vincent Price as a pair of soigné suspects. Two years later, Fox decided to rework the motif with The Dark Corner, featuring Clifton Webb again as a cultured criminal type, this time backed up by William Bendix as mindless muscle. Then for its own variation on the theme, Universal populated The Web with Vincent Price and William Bendix — and did quite nicely by them both.

   Edmond O’Brien (back when he was merely chubby) stars as a struggling young attorney hired by wealthy industrialist Vincent Price (back when he was merely nasty) as a bodyguard. So, all obvious jokes aside, why hire a lawyer as a bodyguard?

   Well, there’s a complicated story about an ex-partner (Fritz Leiber) convicted of stealing bonds, now out of jail and maybe carrying a grudge — though Vinnie assures us he himself had nothing to do with the whole messy business. To further complicate matters (he goes on, in his most urbane manner) there’s a business deal pending, and if word got out his life was threatened it might scare away investors. So what more natural than to have a lawyer on his staff who happens to carry a gun?

   Yeah, any mystery fan can see something phony coming down the road like a float in a Macy’s parade, and O’Brien senses it too, but he takes the job anyway, mainly because of Price’s Personal Assistant, played by Ella Raines, one of the most uniquely alluring femmes of the 40s. The script says there’s a romantic spark between them, but frankly, she looks so far out of his class he might as well be in another movie.

   And it seems Price has another personal assistant, this one more appalling than appealing, played by John Abbott, a 40s character actor who projects a prissy ghoulishness all his own. Just what work he does for Price ain’t exactly clear, but one quickly gets the impression it’s nothing very saintly.

   So with some misgivings, O’Brien sees his old cop-pal (William Bendix, surprisingly bespectacled and cerebral here) gets a gun permit, and the show is on. What follows is a splendid game of move and counter-move involving murder (or is it?) blackmail (or is someone bluffing?) and carefully-plotted traps that seem to snare those who set them. Or as Bendix puts it to O’Brien, “Don’t you see? If you prove it’s murder, then you’re the murderer.”

   This is an unusually intelligent film, with stops along the way for well-realized minor characters, like Leiber’s bitter daughter, broodingly portrayed by one Maria Palmer, an actress who should have gone further. And we also get the patently unsympathetic Howland Chamberlain — you may recall him as the loathsome druggist in Best Years of Our Lives or the smarmy hotelier in High Noon — as a pretentious author with clues to Price’s past. Fleeting pleasures in a film that provides an engaging and entertaining eighty-seven minutes well worth your time.